Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)

Cover image by Lia Steen – Shellybeach, KwaZulu-Natal – BirdPix No. 278702

Queleas belong to the Family PLOCEIDAE, alongside related birds like weavers, bishops and widows etc. Ploceids are small and compact seed-eating birds with stout, conical bills. In many species the males are brightly coloured.

Identification

The Red-billed Quelea is a rather variable species.

Breeding males can occur in one of several face mask colour combinations. The most common of which is black, surrounded by a variable straw-coloured or pink band. Some have a white or creamy mask, or the mask may be replaced with pink to purplish feathers.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea). Breeding male.
Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Dave Rimmer

The upper parts are pale brown, with darker central streaks on the feathers. The wings and tail are dark brown and the flight feathers have yellowish edges. The amount of pink coloration on the throat and breast varies considerably between individuals. The rest of the underparts range from whitish to grey or pale brown. The belly is usually white, often with some darker streaking on the flanks. The legs and feet are pink to orange. The eyes are brown and the Bill and eye ring are bright red.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea). Non-breeding male.
Thurlow Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Non-breeding adult males are similar to breeding males, but less colourful. The head is greyish-brown with a whitish supercilium, chin and throat.

Adult females resemble the non-breeding males but the bill and eye ring are dull yellowish. Juveniles resemble adult females but the feathers on the wings have broad buffy margins and the bill is horn brown.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea). Note the two females with yellowish bills.
Morelata Kloof Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Photo by Pieter Cronje

Non-breeding Red-billed Quelea can be mistaken for several other species. The red or yellow bill and lack of bold striping on the head separate Red-billed Quelea from bishops or whydahs at all times. Female Cardinal Quelea (Quelea cardinalis) and Redheaded Quelea (Quelea erythrops) both have a yellow (not whitish to pink) supercilium. The female Cardinal Quelea also has a yellow (not white) throat.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Lufafa Valley, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Status and Distribution

A very common to locally abundant nomad across its range. The Red-billed Quelea is the world’s most numerous bird species with an estimated post-breeding population of at least 1 500 billion birds! However, numbers are known to vary greatly across seasons in any given area.

The Red-billed Quelea is distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, outside of the tropical forest zone. It occurs virtually everywhere in southern Africa, and is generally only absent from true deserts. It has expanded its range and increased in numbers due to the increased availability of cereal crops. In recent years the Red-billed Quelea has been steadily expanding its range into the Western Cape province.

SABAP2 distribution map for Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) – June 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

Red-billed Quelea numbers frequently reach pest levels and control actions are undertaken, but the killing of up to 180 million birds in the region during recent decades has had no effect on the population other than temporary local relief from crop damage. The Red-billed Quelea is not threatened.

Habitat

The Red-billed Quelea is recorded from most vegetation types. It prefers woodlands and grasslands such as dry thornveld and grassland with scattered bushes. It also inhabits semi-arid Karoo scrub and is abundant in cultivated lands. It is most numerous in semi-arid regions, but occurs irruptively in both very wet and very dry areas. A reliance on surface water limits the range of Red-billed Queleas in arid areas.

Typical grassy savanna habitat.
Ithala Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Despite their presence in a wide variety of habitats, the Red-billed Quelea breeds primarily in thornveld at altitudes below 1000m, particularly in the lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, parts of north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Breeding is much less regular in other regions, mostly after periods of above average rainfall.

Behaviour

Red-billed Queleas are hugely gregarious at all times. They roost, feed and breed in aggregations numbering into the millions or more. Quelea flocks are densely packed and highly synchronised in flight, looking like a large cloud of smoke from a distance. Large flocks can easily break trees and branches due to the sheer combined weight of birds. Smaller groups are commonly found alongside other granivores, particularly Bishops and Widows (Euplectes spp.)

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Near Belfast, Mpumalanga
Photo by Derek Kennedy

Red-billed Queleas are highly mobile, commuting considerable distances between roosting sites, feeding grounds and drinking water on a daily basis. Red-billed Queleas need to drink at least twice daily and huge concentrations visit waterholes in dry habitats. They often congregate in large secondary roosts during the heat of the day, often in trees near their feeding areas.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Klerksdorp, North West
Photo by Tony Archer

Large-scale movements occur throughout its range, and in some areas regular seasonal migration follows rain fronts. The presence of Queleas is known to depend on rainfall and veld conditions, which is often erratic, especially in semi-arid environments. As a result the Red-billed Quelea is predominantly nomadic within the region.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Near Malgas, Western Cape
Photo by Johan and Estelle van Rooyen

Red-billed Queleas forage mostly on the ground but also on grass and grain inflorescences. When large flocks feed on the ground, they form spectacular ‘rolling waves’ as birds from the back continuously fly over to land ahead of those already on the floor. They feed primarily on seeds of grasses and cereals, taken directly from plants or from ground. Favours small seeds (1-2 mm in diameter). Red-billed Queleas can cause extensive damage to crops of wheat, sorghum, millet, oats, buckwheat and rice. Insect food includes beetles, caterpillars, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets, bugs, ants, termite alates and spiders.

They may bathe in wet grass and anting has been observed in both captive and wild birds.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Albert Falls Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Breeding Red-billed Queleas are monogamous and highly colonial. All activity within the colony is tightly synchronised through co-ordinated social cues or behaviours. This is to improve safety and to reduce mortality rates. Breeding pairs form small territories, confined to the immediate vicinity of the nest. Males sing at the nest, and also give a visual display with raised and fluttered wings. The visual display is important due to the incessant din of noise within the breeding colony.

The nest is a small, thin-walled, oval ball of grass, with a large side-top entrance and a small overhanging roof. The nest is constructed by the male out of thin strips of grass and takes just 2 or 3 days to complete. Little to no lining is added to the nest. Nests are usually placed 1.5 to 6m above the ground in thorn trees, particularly Vachellia (Acacia) spp. Individual trees may hold up to 3 000 nests, and colonies can cover as much as 80 ha! In southern Africa breeding takes place mainly from November to May with a peak during December and January.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Near Bethlehem, Free State
Photo by John Cox

1 to 5 pale greenish or bluish-white eggs are laid per clutch. No time is wasted and the first egg is laid as soon as the nest is able to hold it, in many cases before the nest is even completed. The incubation period lasts for 10 to 12 days and incubation is shared by both sexes. When one of the pair returns to the nest, the pair greet each other with quivering, half-spread wings.

Newly hatched young are altricial but their development is rapid and they can fly after just 12 to 14 days. They then leave the nest and are independent after 21 days or so. Nestlings are fed by both parents, mostly on small insects.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Albert Falls Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

The mortality rate of nestlings is high with many nestlings either falling from their nests or preyed upon by predators. Red-billed Queleas and their nestlings are a vital component of the food chain and as such are eagerly devoured by a diverse assemblage of predators. Rapid, synchronised breeding is sometimes successful in overwhelming predators, but predation can have a major impact on breeding colonies and some may be completely destroyed by hungry predators.

Nestlings and fledglings are taken by Egrets, herons, hornbills, owls, kites, vultures, Eagles, hawks, falcons, shrikes and storks amongst others. Non-avian predators recorded at colonies are also varied and range from rodents to genets, monkeys, baboons and even Lions (Panthera leo) and Leopards (P. pardus), various snakes and Monitor lizards (Varanus spp.). Colonies are also sometimes attacked by predatory insects such as Armoured Ground Crickets (Acanthoplus spp.). Humans also raid breeding colonies in many African countries, collecting large numbers of chicks but this has little if any impact on overall populations.

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Albert Falls Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Further Resources

Species text from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Dave Rimmer, Derek Kennedy, Johan and Estelle van Rooyen, Jorrie Jordaan, Lia Steen, Malcolm Robinson, Pieter Cronje, Rowan Poortier and Tony Archer is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Rooibekkwelea (Afrikaans); Blutschnabelweber (German); Travailleur à bec rouge (French); Roodbekwever (Dutch); Quelea-de-bico-vermelho (Portuguese).

List of bird species in this format is available here.

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Red-billed Quelea Quelea quelea. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/06/24/red-billed-quelea-quelea-quelea/

Bird identificationbirding

Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Settlers Park, Gqeberha, Eastern Cape
Photo by Jorrie Jordaan
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!